Computers. Cell phones. Deadlines. Traffic. Inflation. Terrorism. Money. With life full of distractions, pressing needs, and unexpected disaster, is it any surprise we feel torn in a thousand different directions? Here’s how modern life is making us depressed, and a few ways to deal with it.
It so happens that stress, improperly channeled, can lead to depression. Most likely it is leading to depression for a great many people. This is because stress is not something which we are built to deal with long-term, almost by definition. Stress arises from a momentary situation. We should deal with it and be done.
Left to fester, the theory of “general adaptation syndrome” comes into play — first the body reacts, to trigger immediate action. If the stress persists, certain organs start developing problems. If the stress still persists, the body is forced to adapt using available coping mechanisms. Finally, if coping is impossible then exhaustion, possibly including irreversible damage, is the result.
Stress and Brainwaves
The link between unmitigated stress and depression appears when we look at the evidence from the brain’s electrical activity. Normally, when we’re alert and relaxed, the brain produces so-called alpha waves. During periods of stress, the brain produces fewer alpha waves and more so-called beta waves. Beta waves are useful in small doses, as they help us think fast. Unfortunately, a decrease in alpha wave activity and an increase in beta wave activity, over the longer term, is associated with a variety of mental disorders from depression to schizophrenia.
The Drive to Impossible Perfection
Another issue of modern life is the super-perfect nature of our role models, and ultra-competitive culture. Consider the following.
As hunter-gatherers, we lived in small communities of 50-100 people. Chances are, everyone was the best in the community at something. Maybe it was spotting gooseberries or building shelter, but there was always cause to be satisfied with yourself. Not so today. Modern life is a world of striving ever upward, never finding satisfaction as there’s always a bigger fish in the pond. Low self-esteem, one of the key pillars of clinical depression, seems almost a foregone conclusion.
Skewed Measures of Achievement
Furthermore, identity is defined by external measures of achievement. Rather than taking our sense of well-being and happiness from internal concepts — “am I fulfilled?” — we look to the size of our cars, the marble floors of our bathrooms, and position on the company organization chart as a measure of our value as human beings. In general, people who are passionate about their work, enjoy the company of their friends, and love their partners become depressed much less often than the norm.
Pile on to this the often harmful nature of modern culture and you have a recipe for trouble. Consider that the incessant, loud, and unnatural sounds surrounding us in city life can cause hearing loss — itself associated with depression, when we find we cannot appreciate the world quite as well as we once did. The Western diet and sedentary lifestyle with their accompanying obesity and physical weakness contribute to this as well. Fat people tend to be more likely to suffer from depression than fit people.
Even worse is the medication-only approach to depression favored by doctors and patients in a world with “no time” for measures like psychotherapy. Antidepressants serve to counteract the chemical forces in the brain which are causing depression, but they do not treat the chemical forces themselves. The symptoms may be gone, but the cause still remains. In fact, the introduction of antidepressants can off-balance other mechanisms within the brain and body leading to side effects and problems.
What’s The Solution?
As people we need what we’ve always needed. Real food, instead of processed junk. First hand experience of the world, instead of one mediated by screens and technology. Physical exercise, instead of long commutes.
Simply adding a little physical exercise can go a long way to offset the other factors, too. As one researcher observed, someone who’s faced with a one hour commute every day needs to make 40 percent more money in order to achieve the same level of life satisfaction as a person who walks to the office.
Besides exercise, keeping a journal and practising meditation can help beat rat-race induced depression. Writing down your thoughts and what happened every day lets you see your problems in a constructive and balanced fashion. Points you may have been blowing out of proportion in your mind are revealed on paper to be the insignificant details they really are. Mediation has been shown to positively affect the brain in many ways, and goes a long way to reducing stress and anxiety. Give them a try — you may discover it’s the simple measures that make the biggest changes.
Alex Pejak is a health blogger currently working on a few projects in Australia, including one for Acoustic Hearing Clinics. She is also interested in topics related to well-being and natural healthcare.